Throughout her thirty-eight year missionary career in southern Nigeria, West Africa, Mary Slessor (1848-1915) exhibited the spirit of a true pioneer missionary. She was never content to settle down permanently in one location, but was always seeking to advance Christ’s kingdom work into hitherto unreached areas.
The first twelve years of her missionary career were spent along the coastal region of Calabar, where Scottish missionaries of the United Presbyterian Church denomination had ministered for three decades. Mary then gained permission from the UPC Foreign Mission Committee to carry out missionary service in the previously unreached Okoyong region, which she did for the next seventeen years. (See my June 21, 2017, Perspective for a summary of her courageous, compassionate service during those first two periods of her missionary career.)
In 1904 she once again gained the Foreign Mission Committee’s permission to expand her work further inland to a pair of unreached tribes, the Ibo and the Ibibios. Slavery, human sacrifice and cannibalism had been carried out among them from time immemorial. While the British Government was seeking to curtail those practices, they were known to persist, especially in more isolated regions.
In opening that new work, Mary was initially granted one year in which to carry out itinerate ministry in the area. She took with her a small group of Christian teenagers whom she had trained in Okoyong to assist her in the new ministry. Amazingly, by the end of that year of itinerating, Christian schools and congregations had been established in six towns and villages along Enyong Creek which ran between the Ibo and Ibibios.
When Mary’s year of ministry travels concluded, her mission board desired her to resume her former responsibilities back in Okoyong. But she could not reconcile herself to that prospect, explaining: “There is an impelling power behind me, and I dare not look backward. Even if it cost me my connection with the Church [denomination] of my heart’s love, I feel I must go forward. I am not enthusiastic over Church methods. I would not mind cutting the rope and going adrift with my bairns, and I can earn our bite [food] and something more.” She was greatly relieved when the Mission decided to free her from normal responsibilities at a fixed base so from that point forward she could act as a pioneer missionary.
Her advance into Ibibios territory was aided by the fact that the British government was building roads in that region. “Get a bicycle, Ma,” government officials said, pointing to the road, “and come as far as you can. We will soon have a motor car service for you.” At fifty-seven years of age Mary gamely learned to ride a bicycle after a government official presented her with a brand new model from England.
The early months of 1909 found Mary covered with painful boils from head to foot. “Only sleeping draughts keep me from going off my head,” she related. She later became severely ill from blood poisoning. She was taken to Duke Town near the coast where members of the mission attentively nursed her back to heal. But after five weeks of such care she was eager to resume her ministry responsibilities inland, and did so before some officials and doctors thought it fully advisable.
Eventually her health declined to the point that the Mission’s doctor forbad her to travel by bicycle. Hearing of her need for an alternative means of transportation, a group of ladies in Scotland sent her a Cape cart, a basket-chair on wheels capable of being maneuvered along quite easily by two boys or girls.
In the closing years of her life Mary established churches and schools in the villages of Ikpe, Odoro Ikpe and Nkanga further up Enyong Creek. She carried out ministry at those locations unaided by fellow missionaries. To her deep disappointment, the Mission had already concluded that health conditions were not safe enough in that region to place other missionaries there. To the end, however, she continued to be assisted by several African girls who lived with her as foster daughters.
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A fuller account of Mary Slessor’s storied missionary career in Calabar is recorded in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). W. P. Livingstone’s Mary Slessor of Calabar, Pioneer Missionary (originally published 1916) is the classic full-length biography of her life. Bruce McClennan’s Mary Slessor, A Life on the Altar for God (Christian Focus, 2015) is a more recent full account of her life.
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie